A View from the Sidelines about Online Communication by (History) Teachers

We are following up Hugh and Richard’s blogpost yesterday with reflections about communcation with our students in the online space from someone who is not a historian. We are grateful for this really helpful contribution as we may be too deep into our own thgouths and many students we teach may not communicate as we do, or as we think they do. For whatever reasons, some students will grasp what we mean straight away and others will be bamboozled.

Thanks to Pat Dawson for this blogpost. Some of you will know Pat well. She is, of course, an honorary history teacher and is the wife of Ian Dawson. Pat is also an engineer with a PHd in fluid dynamics. She offers us her observations in the hope that they will be useful in helping us as we all learn how to get better at communicatin and teaching in this new world.  


I don’t follow many teachers on Twitter (and those I do, I follow socially) but I’ve seen enough of their work-related tweets to realise that the amount of digital communication within the teaching profession has increased significantly – worksheets, planning diagrams, meetings, CPD etc. But, reading between the lines, I’m sensing a level of disquiet and a lack of confidence amongst some in the community.

These changes and concerns have piqued my interest because they intersect with my personal and semi-professional experience of online learning and communication (in photography) and webmaster/resource maker (for Ian).

As an engineer I learnt the specialised communication skills which my profession needed; now I’m looking over the shoulders of both history teachers and artists and learning anew the different ways they communicate their knowledge and passions. And this leads me to question whether things might have got unnecessarily complicated for teachers; I wonder whether there are ways for them to prepare material for remote teaching which is more accessible for students, more user-friendly and less daunting for the teachers themselves, and which inspires more confidence in everyone.

I am aware it could be a very bad time to throw yet another thing at teachers, particularly something from yet another weirdo on the sidelines!! But I offer these thoughts hoping it will help inform your own views and allow you to feed them on, as the debate on remote teaching/CPD inevitably develops.

1. Awareness du Jour.

When I’m learning a new topic or when I’m facing a new experience, I know I become overly aware of the ‘new’ and this takes precedence over my ‘old’ knowledge.

At different times this ‘awareness du jour’ has included:

  • scotopic sensitivity – a visual issue which can affect reading (I encountered this when my son was being assessed for dyslexia)
  • website accessibility issues for the visually/physically impaired
  • the differences between the way we read online, compared with print-based reading
  • the rule of thirds (in photo composition)
  • and more

On these occasions I’ve found myself thinking ‘how can I incorporate this new awareness?’ instead of asking myself ‘what is it I’m trying to do?’

And this has made me wonder whether the unfamiliarity with remote learning has triggered something similar in teachers – that dual coding and cognitive load theory, for example, are the ‘awarenesses du jour’; that it’s skewing thoughts and leading to the dominance of ‘how’ over ‘what’; that ‘new knowledge’ is tending to take precedence over ‘old knowledge’ i.e. the importance of good clear communication.

2. Visual Fatigue and Preconception

We’re all familiar with the visual fatigue that occurs when reading the 37th draft of an article we’ve written – we read what we expect to see, not necessarily what’s actually there. And it may be helpful to mention that I’ve experienced the same problem with worksheets and layouts, even though they may only comprise one sheet of A4 rather than 20 pages of text.

Similarly, in the UK most of us read from the from left to right without thinking about it. And the same top-left to bottom-right instinct implicitly affects the way in which we read worksheets and layouts (although book designers often favour the right-hand page because of the way we browse a book – the flick test).

On top of this natural (to us) left-to-right direction of reading, the person who designs the worksheet implicitly reads the content in the structured way they planned it and then subsequently wrote it up digitally. If they planned it, for example, to read in a clockwise direction, then that is the only way they will ever look at it.

Exemplifying this in the way I worked recently on the worksheets for Ian’s Big Story, I started with his sketches for the design of the pages; then translated this onto the digital page by blocking out the different areas; next I populated each area with content – starting with the content which Ian had marked as being the most important because I had to ensure I could fit it in (this went into the key-note area); then I continued with the lesser content, till I put the captions in, last of all.

But the problem was that I now had this structure (you may think of it as layering or a pecking order of knowledge) indelibly printed in my mind. So, every time I looked at the layout, I first looked at that most important area, then the second and so on, and I read the captions last of all. I didn’t need to be told or explicitly shown the reading order because I knew it implicitly and, as a result, I wouldn’t conceive that anyone could possibly ‘read’ it a different way, a different order.

In contrast, someone who is seeing the layout for the first time has none of this bias – no preconceptions – and hence needs a visual route around the information to be clearly signposted – i.e. start here, move here, then move here etc.

3. Visual (and Emotional) Comfort

When I’m in an art gallery, I have the option of how I approach an artwork – how quickly or slowly, how close I stand, which areas I look at first, maybe I’ll approach it in several stages. Thus visually, emotionally and physically I feel in control. But the experience is different when I see the same work on my tablet – it tends to fill my visual field rather than just being a part of it.

For example, Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’ alarms me on a tablet; it feels ‘screamier’ in close-up, particularly if I’m just looking at the distorted face. I like to think I could feel slightly more relaxed, if I saw it hanging in a gallery and I could approach it cautiously (rather as one might approach a tiger!)

And I suspect that many pupils will react in the same way that I do – their equivalent of my art gallery is the familiarity and support they absorb within the classroom; there’s the visual comfort of material on a distant whiteboard, with a range of other soothing things in their peripheral vision – the teacher, friends etc. But for them, material will feel ‘screamier’ (more alarming and disorienting) when it’s on a tablet and they’re reading it in an unfamiliar learning environment without friends around providing any implicit moral support.

4. Logic is in the Eye of the Beholder.

I remember watching an engineering colleague testing a piece of computer code for me. I couldn’t believe he could make such a cobblers in following the brilliantly clear (in my mind) instructions I’d given him. His impulse to get started and ‘do’ was far stronger than the best practice we all know about i.e. understand the task before you try to execute it.

And I wonder whether teachers and pupils are replicating this pattern. That, on one hand, the instructions might not be as clear as the teacher imagines and, on the other hand, the pupils try to start ‘doing’ before they’ve read them fully anyway, and then start to panic. Thus absolute clarity is essential.

5. And Clarity is in the Eye of the Beholder, too.

Recently I was on the receiving end of the pupil-experience – reading Ian’s chapter and the pupil tasks he’d written for ‘Your Big Story’. And I can still reconnect with the feelings of disorientation and unease which it triggered.

In early drafts, for example, he sometimes he called it the Big Picture, sometimes the Big Story – were they the same? Then a task read ‘write the Big Picture’ – but how could I write a picture? And it was The Big Picture – there must be only one. Did I understand it fully? What if I got it wrong.?

Might pupils react in the same way as I did – borderline panic – particularly in an unfamiliar and unsupported environment because they didn’t have Ian’s knowledge that a big picture and a big story were fundamentally the same.

(These issues were all addressed and, in the final version, it’s Your Big Story throughout and words that are genuinely interchangeable – e.g. Middle Ages and Medieval – are explained.)

And whilst this highlights an example of inconsistent vocabulary there’s a visual equivalent that I can find equally disorienting and try to avoid when setting up his layouts and that’s the random use of colour, different fonts, images and clipart – i.e. actually the random and inconsistent use of anything.

6. And Adding Another Perspective!

At this point, I asked Ian about his editorial experience and, rather than try to relay his views, I got him to write it down:

As an editor, one of my most frequent observations was that many excellent teachers did not use precise enough language when first writing textbooks; this applied especially to tasks. The reason for this is, I think, that in the classroom that degree of precision isn’t needed – you have the chance to explain or re-word verbally. But when writing a textbook for use by another teacher of by students for homework, you can’t provide that extra level of explanation. My experience was that most teachers had to learn this when writing textbooks and I assume the same point applies to the preparation of material for online learning. You have to learn to self-edit rigorously; or get a non-history teacher to comment ruthlessly!

Which Means That …

I’ve provided a lot of background context from my experiences but how might someone implement them?

(i) First Impressions

With the mantra of ‘good communication’ ringing in my ears I always try to imagine how someone else might view the layouts I’m preparing – does it look screamy? shouty? dense? impenetrable?

I know it’s impossible to repeat one’s first impressions but if you look at a picture or a worksheet through squinty eyes and/or turn it upside down you lose its context, and get the next best thing to a first impression.

Or you can ask someone else for their very first impressions – preferably someone from a different background who will ‘look’ rather than ‘read’.

(ii) Layouts

Is there a route around the material that the user needs to follow? And, if so, is the start point clear? And then are all the subsequent steps in the route clearly signposted?

Does the direction of the route feel natural and comfortable – or is it the visual equivalent of swimming upstream against a strong tide? The latter means the user tends to lose their place easily.

Has the layout been designed on the principle of ‘even more is more’ – a triumph of high content leading to low accessibility? Might it be better to use more than one page – make the information available in stages, increasing the detail with each stage.

(iii) Vocabulary

Is the vocabulary consistent? I think it’s tempting to use a variety of words – e.g. Big Story, Big Picture, Overview – to avoid the risk of boring repetition. But, instead, it risks confusion if students don’t appreciate that all the words mean the same thing.

Ian adds that the consistent use of vocabulary is more important than focussing on ‘difficult’ words – words which often get the blame when comprehension is low

Is the passive voice helpful?

Is the future pluperfect really necessary – or just grammatically correct?

Do the headings provide useful signposts?

(iv) Use of Colour

The use of colour is a tricky issue – my brother is colour blind and I really have no idea what he sees and how distinctive colours are for him. But, the general considerations about colour are:

Is colour being used for any purpose – or just for variety/impact?

Is it used consistently?

What happens to the clarity of a colourful page when it’s printed in b&w?

Has the use of colour reduced the readability? This often occurs when maps are being annotated, for example. And the use of light text on a dark background is a legibility-nightmare for many (myself included).

(v) Use of Images, Clipart etc.

Ideas about the use of visuals are largely the same as colour. Hence:

Are they being used for a specific purpose?

Are they used consistently?

Is the visual message they carry the same as the message they’re supporting in the text?

(vi) Clarity and Accessibility

And, in conclusion, my final thoughts are …

Is the communication as good as you (the author) imagine?

Is there any possible way it might seem ambiguous, be misunderstood?

Has someone else read it and done the tasks? Preferably someone with a different mindset/ different discipline e.g. has an engineer or a science teacher reads history material?

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